Abandoned rails along Bloomingdale Avenue to be transformed into trail, park

By Tim Shaunnessey

A long-abandoned freight track runs along and above Bloomingdale Avenue on the city’s Northwest Side, flanked by grassy embankments with flowers growing mere feet from the rails. The track has long been a destination for explorers in the Logan Square neighborhood and will soon be transformed from a relic of industrial expansion into a trail and park.

The Bloomingdale Trail project is a long-running undertaking by both community groups and government that has been in planning stages since 1997. It calls for converting the track into an elevated trail and park to offer relief from of urban development in the area. The trail will run through the Humboldt Park, Logan Square, Wicker Park and Bucktown communities and is planned to be functional for pedestrians by 2014.

Ben Helphand, president of Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail, a volunteer organization in support of the project, co-founded the association in 2003 with other community members.

“We all believed that this industrial space should be reborn as a community space,” Helphand said.

Both Mayor Rahm Emanuel and former Mayor Richard M. Daley have supported the project. Helphand said Emanuel in particular helped revitalize the project, making it a priority during his mayoral campaign. True to his word, Emanuel included the trail as part of the city’s recently released Building a New Chicago project.

“[The project will consist of] turning an old train track into three miles of nature trail, bike and running paths that will connect four distinct Chicago communities,” Emanuel said during the March 29 announcement of Building a New Chicago.

Alderman Rey Colón (35th Ward) said he believes connecting the trail will have significant benefits for residents and visitors.

“The fact that it’s connecting communities that normally would consider themselves having few things in common really allows people who live in the city, or people visiting the city, to really get the flavor of Chicago as a city of neighborhoods and not just a downtown metropolis,” Colón said.

Emanuel’s announcement called for the project to be completed by 2014. Helphand noted that the rail will be usable at that point, but completing aesthetic elements of the trail, such as the park and planned artwork, would take additional time.

The original plans for the trail called for an extension to the Chicago River, but current plans have it ending at Ashland Avenue near Walsh Park, 1722 N. Ashland  Ave. Colón said he hopes for the trail to eventually extend as far as the river.

The stretch of track has existed since 1872, a year after the Chicago Fire. Originally built on the ground, the track was elevated in 1910 to separate it from other traffic as the city had become more congested. Use of the track steadily decreased until it fell into disuse in the early 1990s.

While the idea to convert the track was conceived in 1997, it first gained momentum in 2002 as part of the Logan Square Open Space Plan, which was designed to increase the quantity and quality of open spaces in the neighborhood.

“At the time, we were considered to be the top two deficient wards in as far as recreational space,” Colón said. “The Bloomingdale trail—of the 14 or so open-space projects—was the most compelling but most expensive and least attainable because of the cost to transform it.”

He said he thinks the trail’s completion will be significant for both the neighborhoods it connects and for the city of Chicago as a whole.

“It’s significant in keeping the historic Bloomingdale rail line and repurposing it for cycling and pedestrians,” Colón said. “It’s a great amenity and in my opinion something that is going to be renowned throughout the country.”

Helphand said the trail will serve many purposes, functioning as place for residents to exercise and as a corridor running east and west.

“For some people, it’s about community health,” he said. “Some people think, ‘Oh, I can commute now,’ and it improves their quality of life.”

Helphand said that the project appeals to him in both ways.

“It’s a marriage of both the practical and the whimsical,” he said. “I’ve got a daughter, and I’m going to teach her how to ride her bike on the Bloomingdale Trail.”